Ruling in Major Freedom of Information Act Case Requires Meaningful Responses to Requests

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On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued an important ruling in a lawsuit that Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed against the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The court agreed with CREW’s position that in order to meet the Freedom of Information Act's (FOIA) deadline to reply to a request, an agency's response must be meaningful. The Center for Effective Government supported CREW’s position by joining an amicus brief in June 2012.

The case presented important procedural questions under FOIA: generally, a person filing a FOIA request must exhaust administrative appeals within an agency before going to court over documents the agency has not produced. But if an agency does not meet the 20-day deadline to respond to a FOIA request, the requester automatically meets the exhaustion requirement and may take the agency to court. The questions at stake in CREW v. FEC were: What constitutes "a response" to a FOIA request? Is any reply by the deadline enough to prevent a lawsuit over withheld documents?

In this instance, by the time the deadline passed, the FEC had only acknowledged that it was processing CREW's FOIA request; it had not granted or denied the request. The FEC argued, and the Justice Department agreed, that such a response was adequate under the law. The appeals court rejected that reasoning and said that an agency must make and communicate its decision on responding to a FOIA request (by either producing documents or denying the request) within the 20-day window.

The appellate court's strong ruling in CREW v. FEC will hold agencies accountable for responding to FOIA requests in a timely fashion, which will improve enforcement of FOIA and increase agency compliance with the law's deadlines.

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